The Forty Years’ War For The West by William Dean Howells
The Forty Years’ War For The West
The French king gave up the West to the English king in 1763, but, as we have seen, the Indians had no part in the bargain. They only knew that they were handed over by those who had been their friends to those who had been their enemies, and they did not consent. They had made war upon the English colonists before, and now, in spite of the failure of Pontiac, and in spite of Bouquet’s march into the Ohio country, they kept up their warfare for forty years, with a truce when it was convenient, and a treaty of peace when it was convenient, but with a steadfast purpose to drive the English settlers out, and to hold the wilderness for themselves. It was not until long after their power was broken by the American arms in 1794 that their struggle ended in the region which ten years later became the state of Ohio.
There was misunderstanding on both sides. The Indians naturally supposed that their own country belonged to them, and the colonists supposed that their eastern and western borders were the two oceans. These were commonly the boundaries which the English king had given them; and when he had not been quite clear about it in his grants of territory which he had never even imagined, they did not allow him to deal less splendidly with them than such a prince ought. He had, as we know, given the Ohio Company of Virginia a large tract of the best land beyond the Ohio even while the French still claimed the West, and he had encouraged the Virginians to believe they had a right to settle it and to fortify it. But after the capture of Quebec, when the West, as well as Canada, fell into the power of Great Britain, the English king, or rather his ministers, began to change their minds about letting the colonists take up lands in the Back Country, as they called it. The jealousy between the colonies grew less, but the jealousy between them and Great Britain grew greater; there were outbreaks here and there against her rule, and there was discontent nearly everywhere. The colonists were disappointed and embittered that the West should be treated as a part of Canada, by the mother country, when it ought to have been shared among the English provinces. The British government tried to hinder the settlement of the whites on the Indians’ lands; and though it could not keep them off altogether, it did enough to make the savages feel that it was their friend against its own subjects. In 1774, Parliament passed a law which declared the whole West, between the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, and below the Great Lakes, a part of the Province of Quebec. This was felt by our colonies to be so great an injury that it was charged against Great Britain in the Declaration of Independence, as one of the causes for separation. It was in fact an act hostile to a people of the British race, language, and religion, and it was meant not so much to help the savages, as to hurt the colonists, though it did really help the savages. When the Revolutionary War broke out a year or two later, the British government did not scruple to make use of the cruel hatred of the Indians against its rebellious subjects.
It set on the war parties that harried the American border, and when the blood-stained braves came back with their plunder, their captives, and the scalps of the men, women, and children they had murdered, they were welcomed at the British forts as friends and allies. In certain cases, to be sure, British officers did what they could to soften the hard fate of the prisoners, but the British government was guilty, nevertheless, of the barbarous deeds done by the Indians. Its agents furnished them with arms and ammunition, and its ministers upheld them in the same atrocities against the American rebels as the French in their time had urged and tempted them to commit against the settlers when they were English subjects.
At the end of the Revolutionary War, the Indians were as slow to lay down their arms as they had been after the French War. In each case they fought the victors, as far as they could get at them in the persons of the hapless backwoodsmen and their wives and children. These backwoodsmen did not change greatly, in their way of life, during that long Indian war of forty years. They were of the hardy English, Welsh, and Scotch-Irish stock which a generation or two in the wilderness had toughened and strengthened. They had not yet ciphered it out that one red hunter and trapper must waste the fifty thousand acres which would support the families of a hundred white farmers in comfort and prosperity; but they knew that to the westward there was a region, vast and rich beyond anything words could say, and they longed to possess it, with a hunger that was sometimes a pitiless greed, and always a resistless desire. Yet it was not until the French gave up this region that they could even venture lawlessly into it, and it was not until it fell from Great Britain to the new power of the United States that the borderers began openly to press into the backwoods, singly as hunters and trappers, in families as neighborhoods as the founders of villages and towns. The pioneers felt that they were going to take their own wherever they found it, from the savages who could not and would not use it, and they were right, for the land truly belongs to him who will use it. The savages felt that the pioneers were coming to take their own from them, for in their way they were using the land; and they were right, too. All that is left for us to ask at this late day is which could use the land best and most; and there can hardly be any doubt of the answer.
To understand the situation clearly, the reader must keep in mind certain dates. Celoron de Bienville visited the Miamis in 1749, and the French kept the Ohio Indians on the warpath against the English settlements to the eastward until 1763, when they gave up the West to Great Britain. Then, until 1775, the savages alone fought the settlers as the subjects of the English king. The Revolutionary War broke out, and the Indians became the allies of the British. Then, in 1783, their country was given up to the United States, and they still fought their old enemies, who had not changed their nature by changing their name to Americans. In 1794, the great battle of Fallen Timbers was fought on the banks of the Maumee, and the long struggle was ended.
It had grown more and more fierce and cruel as time passed, and only three years before General Wayne won his lasting victory, General St. Clair had suffered his terrible defeat by the Indians. Through this defeat, the power of the whites in the West was shaken as it had never been before; the savages were filled with pride and hope by the greatest triumph they had achieved over their enemies; and all the settlements in the Northwestern Territory were endangered.
Perhaps I had better say seemed endangered. The Indians were really less to be feared than at any time before. They were weaker, and the whites were stronger. They were striving against destiny; and though their fate was sealed with the blood of their enemies, their fate was sealed. All the chances that had favored them had favored them in vain, and neither their wily courage nor their pitiless despair availed them against the people who outnumbered them, as the stems of the harvest field outnumber the trees of the forest.